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The IJsselmeer Marathon Swim: 22k

Written by Ned Denison

2014-08-11 - Medemblik (NED) - Anyone who ever visited the Netherlands knows that the Dutch rule the water. They built a massive dam across the Zuiderzee and created one of the largest fresh water lakes in Northern Europe (out of the ocean!)– the scene of their only marathon race – 45 years strong. I had read about it years ago and it went on my long list.

At the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Cork I met an email acquaintance Niek Kloots (co-webmaster and founder of European Open Water Swimming), one thing led to another – and I applied. The qualification was tough: 10k in a 25m pool in 2 hours 35 – I was 5 minutes under and panting (or 2.45 in open water - with reputable distance measurements). Another email acquaintance (fellow member of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame [IMSHOF] Board of Directors), Richard Broer agreed to be my coach. Having the courage to enter the IJsselmeer I doubled up and booked the 21.6 mile Loch Lomand swim right before 2014 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Scotland.

The trip was a chance to improve – so I started by packing super lite. This started with one long sleeve shirt and no jacket or hat. My partner Catherine and I flew to Amsterdam toured for the day and headed by train and bus to Medemblik to meet in the Muziekcafé Brakeboer (a pub). What could be better? I was impressed by seeing a real committee in action (not the 1 or 2 person show we often have) and it was my first FINA experience – down to the 20+ umpires dressed in white. The IJsselmeer also serves as the Dutch National Championship so there were all the young guns one would expect with 1 from Denmark, France and Ireland and 3 Belgiums. The visitors were called out and made to feel very welcome by all including Marcel Stroet (English Channel relayer and coach to FINA swimmers).

Medemblik is a small town: within walking distance 1 hotel, 1 B&B and 1 small campground/bungalow park so the organising committee arranged lodging by local townsfolk (special thanks to Rutie Breebaart!).
Rolling out of bed on race day we headed back to the pub and were assigned to cars for the 70 minute drive along the dam to the start. Still trying to improve I got my nerves under control and slept. The water was frothing and the wind screaming when we arrived at Stavoren. During an announced delay I met Dutch superstar Irene van den Laan (IMSHOF inductee and Board member) a veteran of 16 IJsselmeers! I also met Monique Wildschut (IMSHOF inductee). The race was then called off due to excessive winds. It was the correct call. Many of the swimmers would probably have been ok, but taking a sail boat into high winds with just the engine was not going to be pretty. I had been assigned to one of the most experienced (25years in the race) skippers Bart Bot. He was eager to go – so Richard hatched a plan for the Sunday. Marcel van der Togt (English Channel soloer, IJsselmeer winner, former Dutch National coach) would coach, the organisers would find us lodging and Milko van Gool (North Channel male record holder) would join as the observer.

Back by car to Medemblik (not the way it was meant to be!) – so Catherine and I explored the area. That evening there was a massive spaghetti dinner in the pub with great conversation about past races and the 3 cancelled races over the last 45 years.

Up on Sunday we found a similar wind (a bit reduced from Saturday) with a chance of lightening. Bart appeared in Fidelta with the number NED 2947 on the side of the sail boat > it was meant to be! The pub occupants cheered as I jumped off the wall outside the pub. Catherine and Marcel’s son Mark rounded out the soon to be very wet crew. A calm 300 meters in the harbour and then it was windy/lumpy time. Bart towed a sea anchor and was pointed 30 degrees off his desired line in the wind > while I tried to swim alongside. The wind was force 5 and 6 – gusting to 7. We had some rain – but thankfully no lightening. Still trying to improve I didn’t look and didn’t ask – I just swam. Many times I couldn’t see the crew or boat (bar the mast) due to the waves and just kept swimming quietly. Marcel waived me nearer perhaps 8 times during the crossing and Bart gave me a count down with 10k to go. The water was rougher as we came nearer the end and while my stroke remained constant the distance covered each 30 minutes shrunk to embarrassingly small numbers.

I was certainly happy to finish in 7 hours 27 minutes– a time similar to my 26k calm water Zurich swim from the past. I slept on the way back as Bart screamed back under sail with the wind hitting force 10. Back to the pub (where else) to a reception committee and Jack Brakeboer (7 time IJsselmeer swimmer) and pub owner produced a trophy and said some nice words. While Marcel had once swum in higher winds – more than 100k around the shore in a staged swim and another had been out in similar wind on a different course, it seems I was the first eijit (Irish for lovable fool) to cross in such conditions. To top off the hospitality Jack refused payment for the last few rounds of drinks and Milko dropped us in Amsterdam.

I have been spoiled by great hosts at several swims around the world – but the Dutch rank in the top echelon. The only criticism is that I went away having given a few swim caps, a nice bottle of wine to my first hosts and a small fuel donation to Bart’s chosen charity – but the entry fee left me feeling guilty. Two nights hosted, boat, crew, BIG spaghetti dinner, two event towels, trophy and several rounds of drinks for an entry fee of 25 Euro.